For months now, the governors of Texas, Arizona, and Florida have been bussing immigrants east and north, depositing them at Union Station in Washington, D.C. and also in New York City and Chicago. These actions raise questions about scapegoating, heaping political acrimony on the backs of migrants and the methods of transporting them out of certain states.
Social problems emerge and morph so quickly, it’s hard to take a pause to reflect or to learn from them. When a moment emerges, I recommend having Strangers and Scapegoats close at hand. Authored by Christian sociologist Matthew Vos, this new book makes robust and fascinating connections between basic sociological concepts and biblical themes about social groups and identity. I’m delighted to see this book in publication (full disclosure, my endorsement is on the book’s back cover). It is a sociological exploration of Ephesians 2:13, “We who were once far away have been brought near…we who were strangers have been declared sons and daughters” (p. 11). Vos invites Christians to learn more and to commit more deeply to the notion that “we are the people of God, not for ourselves but for the world – a world that we must know, love, and nurture” (p. 12).
The book is organized in three parts. Part one explicates the major concepts of strangers and scapegoats, richly grounded in classical sociological theory and in Christian theology. Part two looks at various categories of “stranger” such as prisoners, legal and illegal immigrants, and intersex persons. Two chapters are written by other Christian sociologists with expertise in particular areas. Part three offers advice and challenges Christians not to engage the “pattern of this world” in ways that elevate one’s own group at the expense of others. Throughout, Vos’s personal stories support readability and case studies provide material for comparison and contrast.
Individual readers will be both supported and challenged in their Christian living as they reflect on their own social location and how their groups relate with others in society. Professors in any discipline can glean insight, case studies, concepts, and themes to apply in integrating diversity and inclusion in a wide variety of courses. For professors from other fields assigned to teach a sociology course, Strangers and Scapegoats pairs with any Introduction to Sociology textbook as a supplemental reading. This book may serve a vital purpose at Christian colleges and universities that are wary or even hostile toward critical race theory or “wokeism.” Vos does not encourage readers to vote or take sides in certain ways; in fact, readers of all viewpoints will be challenged to reflect on their sociopolitical alliances and behaviors in light of biblical themes regarding reconciliation. Solidly grounded in Scripture, not in partisan political perspectives, those who work in diversity areas at Christian colleges and universities may rely on this book to spark difficult and important dialogue that is genuinely grounded in the Christian faith.
I am tempted to praise the book’s strengths, but the urgency and timeliness of the issues it raises prods me to engage its substance, probing two critical areas that may support Christians toward the critically important task of living out the book’s subtitle, “extending God’s welcome to those on the margins.” First, the privilege of white heterosexual non-disabled financially American men warrants critical and nuanced acknowledgement. Vos identifies himself with this group, describing the dynamics of scapegoating and exclusion experienced by women, people of color, and others who do not fit this list of privileged characteristics. This framing of privilege may not be a complete fit for today’s social reality, as men, with all permutations of the list of privileged traits, are suffering alongside everyone else in America with respect to pandemic deaths, mental health challenges associated with the digital age, economic dislocations, and self-harm, suicide and addiction.
I wonder about sociological assertions of group privilege that may minimize or even create shame around Christian unity, sharing our lives honestly and truly with one another. I recall a recent discussion with a diverse group of professionals in which a white man said, “I don’t plan out what I might say in diversity discussions. That’s a place for me to listen, not talk.” There certainly is value in his listening, but there is loss to the whole when efforts to include result in new forms of exclusion. Members of privileged groups certainly should reach outward toward out-groups whose exclusion has boosted in-group privilege, but they should also be seen and known in their individuality. Christian perspectives on diversity and inclusion need insight from social science, but basic Christian practices of fellowship, mutual love, and worship invite us to radical inclusion that honors the belovedness of every person, even the privileged.
My second area of inquiry is about social groups. Vos explains that in-groups require out-groups, and he contrasts this earthly reality with “Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice [that] means that the people of God no longer need to define themselves in opposition to strangers…No more scapegoats. No more strangers. Instead, living water and a new identity. No need for out-groups” (p. 66). Implementation of this extreme ideal seems both impossible and harmful. I recall a Christian man who worked in global humanitarian service. He was also a husband and a father, and his family could not weather his long absences in dangerous locales. He knew from experience that families in the developing world love their children just as much as he loves his, yet he prioritized his family’s needs and shifted his career so he could be safe and at home more. I recall another man with a similar sense of calling whose marriage collapsed after he simply could not or would not put the needs of a few (his wife and children) ahead of the many (the poor of the world).
In a globalized world, this is a wrenching concern. We pay for our children’s orthodontics with full awareness that other children have no food. We buy bicycle helmets to ensure safety with full awareness that other families have bombs dropping on their houses. It is appropriate and responsible to care for those in our spheres of responsibility, yet these inequalities gnaw at the conscience. In anthropology, the parallel concept is ethnocentrism. Without a culture (ethno) at one’s center (centrism), a person could not be human. In addition to humanity in general, a person needs specific other persons in order to be raised and socialized, and even to be conceived. There is treasure in the specificity of our human bonds to spouse, family, culture, and even nation, that requires very careful tending, because the tendency is toward in-group valorization and out-group denigration. In-group bonds are a home base from which to extend out into the broader world with duty and care for others. In this critique, I diverge from Vos’s application of Romans 12:1-2: “we people of God are exhorted to avoid the ‘patterns of this world’” (p.12). Avoiding is too strict a verb. We cannot avoid language, socialization, stratification, or social norms, all patterns of this world. We can test them, however, seeking to know God’s will as we live in the midst of them.
We can and should read good books such as this one. We can and should offer critical thoughts and engage in discussion over them. And still, immigrant families are dumped at Union Station, just one horror among dozens that will unfold by the hour in our world today and then again tomorrow. A friend in Washington, D.C. tells me about Christians serving with broader groups who alert volunteers of bus arrivals. Churches rotate responsibility for sheltering, feeding and helping people find their way to destinations. Structural and political processes would be strengthened with inspiration from such common ground ministry that cuts a path through rancor and inhumanity by extending God’s welcome to those on the margins. It’s a beautiful expression of “hospitality as a normative Christian practice” in a stratified society. “The one truly ‘set apart’ is the one ‘a part’ of the lives of strangers” (p. 238-239).